Do Dogs Use Earth's Magnetic Fields to Navigate?

Today in "amazing things science has discovered about dogs," it turns out that man's best friend may also be a natural navigator, thanks to the Earth's magnetic field. Researchers from Czech University of Life Sciences, Virginia Tech and Barry University described evidence that suggests exactly that in a new paper in the eLife Sciences initiative.

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If this concept sounds familiar, it's probably because you've heard something about dogs' tendency to take a north-south position when they need to relieve themselves. That basic fact was actually the basis for the new research this team worked on and, in order to study dogs' ability to sense the Earth's magnetic field and how they might use it for navigation, the scientists performed two experiments (technically, at least—the experiments were actually identical except for the number of dogs that participated each time). In the experiments, the scientists attached GPS sensors to several dogs and took them outside to run around and play. Every time the experience was performed, the dogs quickly returned to the person who had released them.

But, the point of this study wasn't to answer the question "will dogs return to the person who released them when they go outside to play?" It was to answer the question "can dogs sense the earth's magnetic fields and, if so, how do they use that superpower to navigate?"

To answer that question, the researchers looked at the GPS data about the routes that the dogs took, both when they ran off from the human who released them to play and when they returned to said human shortly after.

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The researchers found that dogs used one of two types of paths to return to their respective humans. In the first, called tracking, they retraced the same path they took when running off initially, presumably guided by their sense of smell. In the second, which the researchers dubbed "scouting," the dogs took a totally different, unfamiliar path.

Here's where things get really interesting, though: Among the dogs who used the scouting method to get back to their human companions, a large percentage ran north-south along a 20-meter stretch of land a few times before beginning their actual trek back to their human friend. This seems to suggest that those dogs were getting their bearings to prepare for the trip back. And here's the kicker: The dogs who did that strange, getting-their-bearings behavior before using the scouting technique to return to their humans were more efficient than those that did not.

The researchers involved in the studies believe that this is evidence that dogs use magnetic fields to orient themselves when they're somewhere unfamiliar and can even use that knowledge to find their way home. To push the theory even further, the researchers ran tests in which they had the owner of the dog hide while the dog made its way back and testing the dogs in different wind directions and speeds. None of the extra variables impacted how efficient the dogs that used the scouting technique were at making their way back, which strengthens the argument that man's forever besties are not just able to sense magnetic fields around them, but to use them to find their way around, too.

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The researchers suggest the north-south running is evidence of the dogs using the magnetic field to orient themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, which in turn helps them find their way home. Further testing involved the owner hiding as the dog made its trek, testing wind direction and speed and noting the gender of the dog. No other factors made a difference in improving navigational efficiency, further supporting the idea that the dogs were able to use the Earth's magnetic field to navigate. The more you know, right?